Among the endless flow of praise and compliments that had been pointed to this University of Alabama football team over the course of the season, one kept recurring.
"Machine." As in Alabama "plays like a machine," or "is a machine." The mantra of "playing to a standard" was part of that, the standard being an almost non-human perfection of execution, a mistake-free, emotionless win-manufacturing unit.
On Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the machine didn't function quite so well. Alabama was minus-two in turnovers, bereft of forward momentum, a team that looked young and rattled and, well, human. Which is what made the final few minutes, and the improbable win which emerged from Baton Rouge, an instant classic. Certainly, there was good execution -- a final defensive stop that led to a missed LSU field goal, a dramatic two-minute drive. But what made it far more memorable was that Alabama, for the first time all year, felt human. Superman had been punched in the nose by an adversary just as big, just as strong, and it had drawn blood.
A machine would have just shut down until the mechanics came to fix it. Alabama did not.
"We didn't play our best game," UA coach Nick Saban said. "But I told our guys I have never been prouder of a team."
Saban even invoked the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden, not in the way of a disrespectful comparison but because UA had watched a presentation about that mission this week to learn a lesson about preparation "when things go sideways, when the helicopter lands on the porch instead of the yard."
That kept happening to Alabama throughout the second half, not just sideways but virtually upside down. LSU was doing to the Crimson Tide what Alabama usually does to other teams. The Tigers were running the ball powerfully - freshman Jeremy Hill in particular. Zach Mettenberger, generally considered a liability, showed the sort of sharpness that McCarron usually exhibits. The Tiger defense kept forcing three-and-out after three-and-out.
It was the perfect recipe for frustration, but Alabama kept its poise.
"It was weird," center Barrett Jones said. "I think we were calm the whole time. We never really panicked. It was a frustrating second half - I don't think we could have played worse. We didn't execute anything - until the last 50 seconds of the game."
Not to correct a 4.0 GPA accounting major, but it was 94 seconds that will live in Alabama history. Alabama hasn't had any sort of dramatic come-from-behind win since it defeated Auburn in 2009, but, with all due respect to the rivalry, that game was largely an exercise in waiting for Alabama to flex its muscles, which it finally did on Roy Upchurch's touchdown. The situation Saturday night seemed far more dire, the opponent far more likely to bring Alabama's championship hopes crashing down. If Alabama does wind up in Miami, I would say you would have to go back to the 1992 SEC Championship Game against Florida to find its equal for sheer drama in a championship situation. T.J. Yeldon's weaving touchdown on a perfect call - a screen pass against a blitzing LSU defense - was reminiscent in a way of Antonio Langham's touchdown run.
This game humanized Alabama. LSU exposed weaknesses that the relentless hype machine had denied. Alabama may still be the best team in the country and may prove it in Miami, but it doesn't seem like such a foregone conclusion. That isn't all bad. Seeing Alabama in a different light, with AJ McCarron weeping for joy or Jesse Williams exulting after an exhausting evening, doesn't somehow make them a lesser team.
It makes them more human, but that only makes them more memorable.
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Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.